Emily Dickenson, one of America’s greatest poets, often wrote about the Four Last Things. She had been briefly schooled at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and so, for example, themes concerning death and judgment can be found in her poems “Ample Make This Bed,” and “Will There Really Be A Morning,” in which she clearly writes about heaven. Here, we hope to answer her question about where heaven is, then guide her pilgrimage toward it, and finally describe what it will be like.
Will there really be a morning?
Is there such a thing as day?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?
Has it feet like water-lilies?
Has it feathers like a bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I have never heard?
Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!
Oh, some wise man from the skies!
Please to tell a little pilgrim
Where the place called morning lies!
“The place called morning”: Dickenson is correct in thinking that “morning” or heaven is a place. The fact that recent popes have denied the spatial dimension of heaven should not cause her too much concern. If one were to have influences from Personalism or Idealism, it would make sense that one’s ultimate destiny would not be conceived in spatial or physical categories. Instead, recall that Our Lord said He would prepare “a place” for us (Jn 14:3). Furthermore, Holy Mother Church affirms that morning (Heaven) is a place by her dogmatic assertions that there are two physical bodies in Heaven: the Assumed Body of Our Blessed Mother, and the Ascended Body of Our Lord. Since bodies only exist in space, Heaven must also not only be a state of eternal happiness but a physical place as well. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange writes:
“Heaven means this place, and especially this condition, of supreme beatitude. Had God created no bodies, but only pure spirits, heaven would not need to be a place; it would signify merely the state of the angels who rejoice in the possession of God. But in fact heaven is also a place. There we find the humanity of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels, and the souls of the saints. Though we cannot say with certitude where this place is to be found, or what its relation is to the whole universe, revelation does not allow us to doubt of its existence” (From Life Everlasting).
Where might Heaven be then if it is a place? Since Christ was taken up to heaven, we can certainly say heaven is not on earth. The heavens literally mean what is, up above the skies. Exactly where heaven is up there, has not been revealed to us, but what we do know is that it is above, and not on, or below the earth. Had Dickenson been a traditional Catholic, she would have known this because of the liturgical requirement that the altar be three steps above the nave. One must go up to altare Dei, which is on God’s “holy mountain.” Thus, to find heaven, Dickenson will need to find help from above—in other words, she must receive supra (above)-natural grace. She is also correct to associate Heaven with the morning. Our Lord rose from the dead in the morning and He will come again from the east, where the morning begins. As St. Peter teaches, “[Y]ou do well to attend, as to a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts” (2 Pet. 1:19). And this is the reason why the bodies of the faithful have their heads, during their funeral Mass, facing towards the East. They are waiting for Christ, the Orient from on High (Luke 1:78), to call them to the Resurrection unto Eternal Life in Heaven.
“Please tell a little pilgrim where the place . . .lies”: To get to Heaven, Dickenson is on the right track to consider herself a little pilgrim. As St. Therese paved the way for heaven by her “Little Way,” so Our Lord insists we become “as little children” if we are to enter heaven (Mt. 18:3). Being a pilgrim is also the way the scholar, St. Thomas Aquinas, understood man in this life on the road of a yet unfinished journey. The “wayfarer,” as he called him, will ultimately end his pilgrim journey in either Heaven or Hell. Thus, a pilgrim is heading somewhere as opposed to the atheist, where life begins and ends on earth. So, Dickenson rightly understands herself as a pilgrim undertaking a journey toward Heaven. St. Paul supports this conclusion: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (I Cor. 15:19).
But what prompts Dickenson, the “little pilgrim,” on her quest for morning? In the apparent absence of being led by supernatural revelation, to find “morning” we may suppose that Dickenson is exercising her “natural desire for happiness” which everyman has (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q.5, Art. 8). Since, as Aristotle wrote, “nature does nothing in vain,” the fulfillment of this natural desire must really exist. But only the perfect good, which “entirely satisfies” every desire, can be the object of true happiness: “God alone constitutes man’s happiness” (ST, Q.II-I, Art.1,8).
By nature, we are directed to created finite substances but the divine nature, where our true happiness lies, is infinitely beyond such human capacities. Though Dickenson has a natural desire for happiness, she cannot satisfy this desire by relying upon her own natural powers. St Paul explained it like this: “For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him that made it subject, in hope: Because the creature also itself shall be delivered from the servitude of corruption, into the liberty of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20-21).
Therefore, our natural state, subject to corruption, will require the supernatural power of God to enable it, through the supernatural virtue of hope, to share in “the glory of the children of God.” When we look more closely at what motivates Dickenson to seek for “morning” we find that it is frequently different than what motivates people today. The “little pilgrim,” who wrote in the relatively stable mid-19th century commences her search with a positive evaluation of creation (birds and feathers) that draws her upward to Heaven. People living in the bloody 20th century often took a different path in attempting to arrive at the same end. In 1908, G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, that the “desire for heaven often begins with some kind of dissatisfaction with earth.” Venerable Fulton Sheen had come to a similar conclusion in 1963:
“Today, people are looking for God not because of the order they find in the universe [i.e., Dickenson’s path to heaven] but because of the disorder they find in themselves. They are coming to God through an inner disgust, a despair that maybe called creative. And so in Ps. 129 we find that it is “out of the depths” that we “cry out to Thee, O Lord” (A Priest is Not His Own).
Having already consulted a scholar in how to get to heaven, Dickenson does well to also ask a sailor. The sailor, St. Peter, will insist that she must enter his Catholic Church (the Barque of St. Peter), prefigured by Noah’s ark, which alone saves from the flood (Cf. I Pet. 3:20-21). Archbishop Lefebvre put it like this:
“There will not be any Protestants in Heaven, there will not be any Buddhists….There will only be Catholics. [While they might have been] in Buddhism, they will be in heaven because they will be members of the Catholic Church. Being Buddhist, and yet wanting to do the will of God, they made an act of charity, of submission to God which gave them baptism of desire and made them implicitly Catholic” (The Spiritual Life, pp. 478-79).
“Wisdom from the skies”: Let us now employ wisdom from above to describe what St. Paul says is beyond description: “for eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him” (I Cor. 2:9). Or as Archbishop Lefebvre wrote in The Spiritual Life, “What we [shall] see in God is going to surpass in beauty, in goodness, in splendor, anything we can imagine.” But not only shall we see God, we shall also see the Most Glorious Queen of Heaven. “For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). For those who are blessed, not only to seek where Heaven lies, but also to arrive there, there will be unspeakable bliss. In the Catechism, Our Catholic Faith, we read:
“The Beatific Vision will satisfy completely and supremely all of our desires.” Having God, we shall never wish for anything else. In Heaven there is eternal enjoyment of God’s goodness and beauty. There is no evil in heaven because “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes and death shall be no more…for the former things have passed away” (Apoc. 21:4).
What we do know about Heaven comes from Divine Revelation. For we need someone who has been there to tell us what it is like—and only the Son of Man has descended from there to do so (Jn. 3:13). Pope Benedict XII definitively taught that “the blessed in Heaven possess an immediate intuitive knowledge of the divine essence.” He based this teaching upon I Cor 13:12, “We see now through a glass in a dark place, but then face to face” and I Jn. 3:2, “We shall be like to Him: because we shall see Him as He is.”
Once in Heaven, the Blessed are covered in God’s light and their spiritual bodies become glorious. These heavenly bodies have the properties of impassibility, subtlety, agility, and clarity. Being impassible, these bodies are free from every kind of physical evil. They are impassable because they are incapable of suffering. The bodily emotions now perfectly comply with the directives of the soul. These bodies are also subtle or perfectly perfected by the soul, so they will have a spiritualized nature. As St. Paul writes, “[I]t is sown a corruptible body, it shall rise a spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:44). These bodies are also agile or submissive to the spirit as they move through space with the speed of thought. And finally, these bodies in heaven have clarity. They are free from every deformity and filled with resplendent radiance and beauty. Saints Peter, James, and John received a foresight of such a heavenly body when they witnessed Our Lord’s Transfigured Body on Mount Tabor. For creatures, each person’s clarity will vary according to the degree of glory in their soul, and this degree of glory will depend upon their merit before God.
Pertaining to our relations to other creatures, Aquinas taught the blessed know all things that pertain to them (ST, III, Q.10, Art.2). All of the blessed in Heaven are united to the members of the Kingdom of God on earth in sharing a common supernatural life with the Head of the Church and with one another. In Heaven, we shall be reunited with those we have loved on earth, and we shall love them more intensely. There will be no more separation. Whatever we have legitimately desired to know here on earth, we shall learn in heaven. All the mysteries of the faith and science will be revealed in heaven. And this, Miss Dickenson, is the testimony that God has given to us concerning the eternal morning of heavenly life. And this life is only to be found in his Son (I Jn. 5:11).